It’s no surprise that food labels can be misleading. However, the degree to which packaged health foods are designed to fool you can be jaw-dropping.
When you enjoy a healthy meal, you make good use of the nutrients like vitamin D and fiber in every bite. That’s the easy part; the difficult part is making good dietary choices to supply these life-sustaining nutrients. The following foods are marketed to seem healthier for your body than they actually are. In fact, these five offenders just might be junk food in disguise.
To be clear, meat alternatives can taste like meat and may even leave you with a satisfying “full” feeling. But to do so, many of these vegetarian products are loaded with extra sodium, saturated fats, or artificial preservatives.
Overall, these products are better for the environment than they are for you. However, there are healthier ways to reduce your meat consumption.
Try instead: meat substitutes that don’t look like meat. As Medical News Today suggests, “Peas and beans, nuts, seeds, seitan, textured vegetable protein, tofu, tempeh, edamame, eggs, milk, cheese, yogurt, and seafood are all high-protein food sources … that also provide calcium, iron, vitamin D and some vitamin B¹².”
Your morning bowl of cereal may advertise its health benefits, including daily recommended doses of fiber, vitamins, and minerals, right on its box. Unfortunately, cereal manufacturers may not be so eager to advertise the other additives that can be packed into these breakfast staples, like surprisingly high quantities of sugar, sodium, and simple carbohydrates, easily digestible sugar molecules that only provide short-term energy.
Worse, good nutrients from grains and nuts are often removed during the cereal-making process. These products are often low in fiber and are stuffed with synthetic ingredients that are unhealthy, especially for the children they directly advertise to. Such family breakfast-table staples may be comforting or even nostalgic, but they should be enjoyed in moderation.
Try instead: hot cereals like oatmeal and breakfast porridge, which contain simpler, more natural ingredients and provide ample healthy nutrients. They may not be as sweet, but you can add a natural sweetener like honey, which has additional health benefits.
Vitamin D Supplements
Vitamin D is an essential nutrient responsible for promoting bone and muscle health. When you get this nutrient from dairy products, fatty fish, and eggs, your body naturally processes vitamin D and puts it to good use. So the more vitamins the better, right? Eager to address their own health concerns, many people shop for supplements like vitamin D pills and powders, which claim to offer a daily boost of this nutrient.
But don’t mistake vitamin D supplements for actual vitamin D. The supplements market, which includes over-the-counter vitamins available at your local drugstore or grocery store, isn’t regulated like medications are. That means the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t test their ingredients or determine if they work—or even if they’re safe at all.
As Gerald E. Harmon, MD, former president of the American Medical Association, says, “The dietary supplement marketplace is an uncertain place for consumers—so little transparency, so much confusion.” So while vitamin D is a popular supplement, you may be wasting money on unregulated products that don’t actually provide the health benefits they advertise.
Try instead: talking to your doctor about your vitamin needs. Only take vitamin supplements if your doctor recommends them, and only trust supplements that they prescribe directly.
On the surface, granola seems like the perfect health food. Its tiny bunches of rolled oats, nuts, and indeterminate grains appear to come straight from the wheat field and are blessed with sweeteners like a light honey glaze.
Granola manufacturers want you to think their products are natural—and for many people, the ruse works. Imagery of barns and wheatgrass on the packaging seems just convincing enough to make you feel healthier when you eat granola. However, some granola bars are classified as “ultra-processed,” or so laden with preservatives, unhealthy fats, sugars, and other dangers that they’re directly tied to declining health.
Try instead: hot cereals such as oatmeal, which are made with simple ingredients and are considered wonderful breakfast foods. If you’re a fan of granola as a midday snack, switch to less-processed, high-fiber options like apples, grapes, and a handful of raw or lightly seasoned walnuts.
Processed weight-loss meals
Companies that provide foods designed to help you lose weight and live a healthier lifestyle wouldn’t possibly lie to you, right? Unfortunately, packaged meals from the healthy section of the freezer aisle may not be as nutritious (or slimming) as they seem.
According to Insider, “[P]repackaged meals tend to have about 8% more calories on average than listed on the label—even ones specifically advertised for weight loss, such as Lean Cuisine or Weight Watchers.” Research has shown that processed foods—any processed foods—can lead to chronic health problems and even weight gain.
Try instead: easy-to-make, affordable meals that you can cook yourself. Shop for simple ingredients like lean meats, complex carbohydrates like whole-wheat pasta, and fresh produce. You can also cut costs with canned or frozen produce without additives. Cooking your own meals with whole ingredients allows you to adjust your portions and monitor your use of salt and sweeteners. When you cook meals yourself, you’re in control of the process and what you put in and what you don’t.
Overall, be sure to eye store-bought “health products” with suspicion before committing to them. Many are designed to be purchased, not necessarily to deliver on their promises. For best results, improve your intake of fruits, nonstarchy vegetables, whole grains, and legumes, which will provide a dependable health boost without the drawbacks or the deceit.